Brandt Coultas

Brandt Coultas
Director of Governmental Affairs, Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce

Tottered on: 17 January 2006
Temperature: 37 F
Ceiling: rain rain rain
Ground: wet and muddy
Wind: ENE at 7 mph

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TT with HD: Brandt Coultas

BC: Can I sit on either side?

HD: You know what, totter end is guests' choice, but it's pretty clear that you should take that [dry] end.

BC: No, I should take this end, because I have GoreTex pants on! It'll be fine. I may use this [umbrella]. I may not.

HD: Well, you get extra credit.

BC: I've got a hat so ...

HD: You want to grab it now?

BC: It's in my pocket.

HD: Let's see if we can ... what do you weigh, like ...

BC: 1 ... 60?

HD: Okay, then we should be roughly equal. Don't worry about that popping. It's been doing that for a while and it hasn't broken yet.

BC: Someone throws their shoes in the tree here, too, huh?

HD: Well, that's me. I couldn't bear to actually throw away my old hiking boots from my Boy Scout days, but I didn't really want to have them in the house in my way any more. You mentioned in an email that you sent when were arranging tottering times that Mulholland is your favorite street in Ann Arbor?

BC: Yeah?

HD: Well, I live here and it's not even my favorite street, so make the case for Mulholland.

BC: Make the case for Mullholland as to why it's my favorite street or why it should be yours?

HD: As to why it's your favorite street or why it's a good street in general.

BC: I would say it's a good street because of the feeling that I got when I went down it ... or when I came upon it. My wife, Jill, and I were looking for houses in Ann Arbor and came around the corner and turned down Mullholland and the hill ... and the houses ... and it just feels really cool to be on the street. I just thought it was a neat street.

HD: Well, one concern I had when we moved in was the close proximity of the houses to each other. If you end up with neighbors you don't get along with, then that could be less than optimal. But it turns out we have great neighbors.

BC: That's good

HD: Just to illustrate, we were at a holiday party recently and I mentioned to one of my neighbors that I was writing a song about teeter tottering and one of the lines goes 'going on a teeter totter ride, eatin peanut butter pie'

BC: Uh huh?

HD: And she said, Peanut butter pie, I wonder how you'd make one of those? So that night she went home, found a recipe online for peanut butter pie, made one from scratch and the following morning knocked on my door and said, Here, I made you a peanut butter pie. That's the kind of neighborhood it is. So I figure I'll stay here at least as long as people bake me peanut butter pies. So I noticed you rode your bike here, you're outfitted in foul weather gear, and know that before you came to Ann Arbor you worked for the Chicagoland ...

BC: ... Bicycle Federation.

HD: Yeah, so do you still follow bicycling as an issue?

BC: Not as much as I used to. By that I mean I'm not as up-to-date. But I certainly I try to stay up-to-date to a certain extent. Like I get the Washtenaw Biking/Walking Coalition E-newsletter and stuff like. But probably not as much as I used to.

HD: So what did you think of this Bicycle Friendly designation that Ann Arbor received from the, what is it, League of American Bicyclists?

BC: I guess my first thought was, That's great. And I think it's great that the city has made it a priority. And the mayor, in particular, has made it a priority. I think Ann Arbor could be a whole lot more bike friendly. So I think it's good but it's nothing to rest on our laurels.

HD: Well, when I looked at the specifics of that award ...

BC: ... yeah ... ?

HD: ... it turns out that it's only a Bronze award.

BC: Really?

HD: So, it goes Platinum, Gold, Silver, and then Bronze.

BC: We got a ways to go, huh?

HD: Well there's room for improvement, for sure. And then it turns out that the League of American Bicyclists, you have to apply to them. It's not like they're just surveying the country and saying, These are the best.

BC: Sure.

HD: So my question is, Of the communities that have applied, how many receive no designation and how many receive Bronze? So really it could be that of the communities that apply, we're in the worst category and everybody gets at least some designation. So that a community that applies is more or less being given an atta-boy for applying: Well you applied, so you must have something going on and you care, so good for you.

BC: Right, that's one way of looking at it. I wonder if the places that aren't doing anything bike-related would even bother applying. You assume that a community that at least applies, there's either a community person or a city staffer or government staff person who's aware of the issues and who works on them.

HD: Right. So how many miles do you log a week? Is it mostly commuting miles or do you actually go out and train?

BC: I would say that I commute a couple of days a week, depending on my schedule. It's not very many miles. I live a mile and a half from work. Some days when I'm back and forth twice, it's six miles, so it's not a lot ... enough that when I don't get any other exercise, I feel like I've been active during the day.

HD: How do you shoot into downtown, do you head up to Miller and then just ... ?

BC: I do a couple of things. Out of my neighborhood there's a cut-through limestone path that's 10 or 15 yards between Bath and Mark Hannah. I cut through there and then turn right on 7th Street and come down Washington. Or I go down Miller to 1st. So I either take Washington into downtown or I take Miller.

HD: Okay, so never Liberty?

BC: I don't take Liberty a lot. I usually don't. I usually turn left on Washington unless I can't get over to turn left. If a car is coming, sometimes I just keep going straight.

HD: What kind of bike do you ride? I saw it when you rode up, but I wasn't really paying that close attention.

BC: A late 80's Trek road bike, a Trek 360. It's an old steel road bike that's outfitted to commute with fenders and a rear rack and stuff. In the nicer part of the year, I try to ride for fun and a little bit more seriously. I used to ride a little bit more seriously than I do now. But it's more a function of work and being busy.

HD: Right, having a full time job and whatnot.

BC: Exactly. I went through a phase where I was really into road riding but ...

HD: I think you would definitely qualify as somebody who commutes by bike. But the statistic that I saw in connection with this award was something like 2.4 % of Ann Arborites commute by bike to work. I thought that sounded a bit high. Maybe that's accurate if you take it as the number of people who have ever ridden their bike to work.

BC: Right. I have a theory on that, not on the commuting specifically, but back when we were talking about Mulholland? When I worked at the Bike Federation, I realized that you're not just working on bike stuff, it's planning what kind of community, what kind of neighborhood do we want to have? The bike lane on Liberty, for example. Regardless of whether or not the neighbors on Liberty use that bike lane, I think having the facility like that, the way the road has been developed, and the way the houses in the neighborhood are ... I think whether they use the lane or not, I think they like having it there. It's a nice a feature to the neighborhood.

HD: It's certainly something that you can point to. But I have to say that, as a cyclist I would almost prefer that it not be designated as a bike lane. That they simply make the road that much wider. And that allows enough room for bicycles to use the road easily and cars to get around them. Because as soon as you put a bike lane there, that says, Okay, cyclists, you're not allow to be over here in the road! At least for the motorists' mindset, from their point of view. They think if you're not in the bike lane or if you're not on the sidewalk, then you're someplace you shouldn't be. And I'm going to be angry and you and I'm going to roll down my window and I'm going to yell at you to, Get in the bike lane! or Get on the sidewalk!

BC: Right. Yeah, I think it's different things for different people. There's a bike lane and there's some people who won't ride in it. They'll ride on the sidewalk because they don't feel comfortable in the lane ...

HD: But on the whole, I think that stretch of Liberty that's a beautiful piece of pavement to ride. And I'm really glad that they did all that work on it. It's a straight shot all the way out to Stadium. And there with all the work they're doing on Stadium, that's going to be really nice, as well.

BC: Another thing I like about bike lanes, I mean, I can see your point, but lines on the road are just useful for motorists. I used to notice in Chicago there'd be a row of parked cars. And the bike lane would be to the left of the parked cars, outside of where the doors would come out, there'd be a bike lane. Cars would use the the stripe inside of the bike lane, so it would get all the cars parked up by the curb. As opposed to, the cars could be a mess. Drivers were forced to recognize lines and where their cars were supposed to be ...

HD: ... so the visual cue just helps organize things ...

BC: ... and also for me it's sort of like a walk signal. When I'm crossing the street and there's a white walk signal and a motorist goes to turn when I'm walking, it's my proof that I'm supposed to be here or that it's okay to be here.

HD: Well, let me change the topic, somewhat.

BC: Sure.

HD: Today's ... actually, I think right now as we teeter totter, the funeral service and the procession for our fallen firefighter is going on. And fire protection as an issue is something I wanted to talk to you about anyway. Because you wrote this letter to Jennifer Granholm on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce. And as best I can tell, it was saying, Thanks for giving us some money for fire protection to cover the UM buildings. Can you just summarize how fire protection works for the University of Michigan in two sentences, the way you'd explain it to a smart fourth grader?

BC: The way I'd explain it is, The City is responsible for fire protection of the university property. It's helpful when the State acknowledges that and gives the City funding to provide fire protection for the university properties. It's helpful when the university ... you know, the university has donated at least one fire truck to the City Fire Department. So when stuff like that happens, it helps the City provide the required fire protection.

HD: So the State does give the City some number of dollars to address that issue. Do you know how much that is?

BC: I don't know how much that is. I can tell you that it has come down to trying to find fire protection funds for Ann Arbor and other cities that have to provide those same kind of services, but I'm not sure what the amount was that Ann Arbor got.

HD: Is it your sense that it's enough to offset the actual additional cost ...

BC: My sense is that it's not the amount that the City would like to get.

HD: Well, I mean, feeling like the City should get more money for fire protection seems like a fairly uncontroversial position to take for the Chamber. But you've spoken at city council, at hearings, public commentary, in various contexts, on behalf of the Chamber, so I was wondering, To what extent do you have to reconcile a personal view on a particular policy issue with the official Chamber view?

BC: Well, let me go back to fire protection for a second. In that case, where we wrote a letter to Jennifer Granholm, that was specifically regarding getting our fair share, trying to help our community get what our community deserves. In terms of where we stand on fire protection overall, it's more of a City budget issue: where are they putting the resources? I think for me, in speaking at City Council meetings, it's really my job. I'm representing an organization. And I haven't had too many situations, where I've felt like I've had to put my personal beliefs or feelings on hold. I guess a lot of issues that we deal with are local government. And the other thing is I always get my own vote, too.

HD: So it's partly a function of the fact that you have a hand in shaping the position of the Chamber?

BC: Yeah, I mean, I don't set their policy. We have members that serve on a committee and a board of directors that sets our policy. I think that the Chamber of Commerce in Ann Arbor takes a common-sense, straightforward approach, a here's-how-much-money-we-have, here's-what-we-can-do-with-it kind of stance on things. So I haven't had too many situations where I've felt like I've been too out of touch.

HD: So does the Chamber of Commerce have an official position on the Greenway issue?

BC: On that issue, we were in favor of building a parking structure at the First and William lot.

HD: So you supported the 3-site Plan as an integrated whole.

BC: Absolutely. And the reason we did that is, when the Greenbelt passed, our organization was very clear that if we, as a community, and as a region, if we were going to do that, then we needed to channel high-density development into those corridors and those urban areas where it needs to take place. So we are a firm supporter of higher density development in places like downtown Ann Arbor. I mean that 3-site Plan fits right into that. I think the thing about the Greenway ... you know, I worked for the Bike Federation and if it's someone like me doing that, I think Goal Number One would be to have some sort of multi-use path, whether it's a limestone path or a paved trail or something. I mean Goal Number One would be to have a facility there ...

HD: ... you mean along the Greenway route?

BC: ... yeah, I mean, if it's feasible, if you can get the railroad to do something like that, and you can can make a path and figure out how to cross the streets and do all the engineering stuff that would have to go with it. I think having that alone would be great.

HD: What about the Calthorpe Report?

BC: What do we think? There again, we think the City needs to move! The City needs to move forward. There's a lot of ideas in the Calthorpe Report that we think are good, and there's a lot of ideas that we probably aren't that crazy about. But the main thing is that the city needs to move forward. We need some real leadership to really make some stuff happen.

HD: My perspective is that the public discourse that I've seen on it has gotten mired in this notion of, It's factually inaccurate. And the one place where I've seen any merit to that claim is the number of Historic Districts as specified in the draft, as opposed to the final version. Because the final version online is accurate, as best I can tell. If people were only oriented to the right version. And so you move from this, I don't know, an error fact, a typo, however you want to characterize it, but you move from that to having someone like Steve Thorp saying it's 'riddled' with errors? So maybe it is riddled with errors, I don't know. But that's the only specific example that I've heard anyone cite in particular and that one seems trivial. But it's not like I've asked Steve ...

BC: My bigger issue and I guess for our organization is, What's City Council going to do? Are we going to be talking about this for a couple of years? Are they going to take this document and everything else they've done in the last three to five years and make something happen? Because we feel pretty strongly that they need to set a course and make this stuff happen.

HD: So have you ever thought about running for office, say, running for mayor?

BC: No!

HD: No?

BC: I mean sure I've thought about running for office, but I've not thought about running for office here. I guess the answer is, I haven't seriously thought about running for office, no.

HD: Do you know of anybody else besides Mayor Hietfje who might be contesting the mayorship for this cycle?

BC: I don't. I don't know. I'm out of the loop.

HD: Is there anybody you'd like to encourage to run? ... from the end of the teeter totter, as rain falls down on our heads?

BC: No, I mean, I don't have a candidate in mind. We [the Chamber] don't endorse candidates, anyway or support them financially, at least not right now. We're worried more about what they do once they get into office. We'll be happy with Mayor Hieftje if he helps make this downtown stuff happen. We'll be less happy if it's talked about for another couple of years and it doesn't pan out. Or if they take the pieces of the Calthorpe Plan that could be used to limit development and pull those out and say, Well, this is the reason why we can't do this, this and this.

HD: I'm getting kinda cold, and wet. And I want to get you on your way. So let's pause the teeter totter for just a second and I'll whip out my camera. And I'll see if I can keep it dry and get a picture taken at the same time.